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Thirty-five years ago, the space shuttle Challenger exploded just over a minute after liftoff, killing all seven crew members.

The 1986 catastrophe was a blow to NASA’s reputation as the investigation that followed revealed serious flaws in the space agency’s decision-making process.

It revealed that the night before the Challenger launch, engineers had tried to stop the launch as they were concerned about the cohesion of the seals on the solid rocket boosters in very low temperatures. The temperatures that night, had dropped to below freezing.

However, their managers at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol and NASA, decided that the Challenger was safe to launch the morning after. 

Accidents are fortuitous , but the Challenger accident could have been prevented. The nation, mourned together the loss of seven lives. The lives of 7 talented and intelligent people on board of the Challenger.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger’s STS-51L mission. From left to right: Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith and Ellison Onizuka.

Judith A. Resnik

37-year-old Judith Resnik was the second female American astronaut to travel into space (Sally Ride was the first in 1983). 

A brilliant scientist, she was also an accomplished classical pianist. Since a tender age, teachers described her as bright and disciplined. 

Judith A. Resnik had a bachelor of science in Electrical Engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University, and a doctorate in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland.

In 1978, at age twenty-nine, Resnik was one of six women accepted into the highly competitive NASA space program. Previous to that, she worked as a biomedical engineer and staff fellow in the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. 

Christa McAuliffe

New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, was to become the first civilian to fly in space and she was planning to give lessons while in orbit to school children. 

Christa earned her place on the shuttle after winning a contest launched by then President Ronald Reagan, the “Teacher in Space Project”. She was selected by NASA out of 11,000 candidates. 

A 37-year-old mother of two at the time of the flight. Christa McAuliffe trained for six months to join the crew as a payload specialist. The term for any non-astronaut who goes up into space on a NASA mission.

That ill-fated morning of January 1986, school children around the country excitedly tuned into the Challenger’s launch due to her presence on the shuttle.

Ellison Onizuka

The Hawaii native was the first Asian astronaut to fly in space. A remarkable achievement for a young boy from a rural community in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii.

He was a brilliant student who attended the University of Colorado, earning a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical engineering, and a Master of Science in aerospace engineering.

He served in the armed forces during the 1970’s and in 1978, he was selected as one of 35 astronauts for NASA’s Space Shuttle Program beating 8.000 applicants. 

He was personable and much loved by Asian Americans. He now has streets, an Air Force station, an asteroid and a crater on the moon in his honour 

Ronald McNair

Ronald McNair came from a low-income family who lived in a segregated community in South Carolina and became the second African American to reach space. 

When he was only 9, he went to the library to read a book only to be told off by the librarian who called the police because he was black and in a public library. 

McNair, a bright child, knew his rights so he stood up for himself and managed to read the book he wanted.The library has now been named after him.

Ronald McNair earned a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and soon after, he applied to join the class of ‘78 at NASA’s astronaut program. 

McNair was also a talented six-degree black belt in karate and an accomplished saxophone player. 

In his first flight, aboard the Challenger in 1984, he played music in space. When he died, he was only 35-years-old. 

Dick Scobee

Francis Richard Scobee was the commander of the Challenger. A remarkable man with an impressive career in both the Air Force and NASA, he was considered a polymath due to his vast knowledge about a lot of subjects.

He served in the Vietnam War, flying in combat missions for three years before returning to the United States. 

He was selected as a candidate to become an astronaut in 1978, joining the same class as Onizuka, McNair and Resnik. 

His colleagues described him as an excellent pilot, aerospace engineer and all-round good guy. 

Gregory Jarvis

Gregory Jarvis was an engineer who didn’t come through traditional astronaut training.

He joined the Air Force during the Vietnam War and worked in the space division, specialising in satellites. 

Afterwards, he worked for ten years on space-related crafts for Hughes Aircraft, a top military and NASA contractor.

Keen to work for NASA, he applied for a job opportunity to work on a NASA space shuttle. 600 top engineers applied but Jarvis was the one who got the job because of his skill and talent. 

Michael J. Smith

Michael J. Smith, the pilot of the Challenger, was a married father of three. He was a very experienced pilot who had served in Vietnam as a pilot. 

Michael J. Smith was so passionate about flying that he received his student pilot license at age sixteen. 

He was also a naval officer with a bachelor’s degree in Naval Science from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. 

During his NASA astronaut training, he went through a five-year period of instruction before becoming the pilot of the Challenger. 

He was heard for the last time on the Challenger voice recorder saying “Uh oh” as he was probably aware they were heading for disaster. When he died he was 40 years old.